ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – As if UNLV’s basketball team needed any extra motivation heading into Wednesday night’s Mountain West game with New Mexico, they apparently got it courtesy of a quote from Lobos center Alex Kirk.
“UNLV overall, just looking at the raw talent they have on the scouting report, it’s pretty scary,” the 7-foot junior told the Albuquerque Journal on Tuesday. “They’re not really having the recent success coming into conference, but that’s a hell of an AAU team.”
Although Kirk told UNLV players he didn’t mean to disrespect them with the AAU comment, it turned out to be a prime motivating factor in the team’s 76-73 upset on Wednesday night at The Pit.
Forget the fact the Rebels lost to the Lobos in last year’s Mountain West Tournament championship game. Or that UNLV’s season was at a huge crossroads after back-to-back home losses to Air Force and Nevada. Comparing the Rebels to a high school summer league squad crossed the line for a lot of UNLV players.
“A comment like that definitely doesn’t go well with me,” said guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who finished with a team-high 23 points, including five key free throws down the stretch that proved to the difference. “We’re a college basketball team. You should never compare us to high school AAU players.”
(Hear more what Dejean-Jones had to say in the VIDEO below)
“When a guy calls your team an AAU team you’ve got to come out strong, it has to be a war,” forward Khem Birch said. “Regardless if it was intentional or not, you can’t let someone say that about your team.”
The Rebels (11-6, 2-2), who entered the game as 8½-point underdogs, came out on a mission, building a 28-12 lead in the first 10 minutes thanks to 9-of-12 shooting and some strong defense.
“(Kirk’s comment) fired us up a lot,” Birch, who finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds, said. “I think that’s the strongest we’ve come out from the jump in a game this season because of that comment. It was a big factor.”
Birch could be seen talking to Kirk for about 10 seconds just before the center jump to start the game.
“He said (the putdown) was unintentional,” Birch said. “He’s a good guy, Kirk. But even if it was intentional or unintentional, you’ve still got to go to war. You can’t let someone call your team an AAU team.”
(Hear more what Birch had to say in the VIDEO below)
New Mexico, behind the strong inside play of senior forward Cameron Bairstow (27 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Kirk (12 points, 11 rebounds), rallied to trail just 46-42 at halftime.
The Rebels led by as many as eight points, 61-53, midway through the second half but the Lobos made it a nail-biter at the end, closing to within a point, 74-73, on two free throws by Bairstow with 1:24 left. Dejean-Jones missed a jumper on the ensuing possession, but Bairstow came up short on a 15-footer that would have put New Mexico (12-4, 3-1) in front. Dejean-Jones then sank two free throws with 26.8 seconds remaining to increase UNLV’s lead to three, and New Mexico missed three 3-point tries in the final eight seconds that would have forced overtime.
Point guard Deville Smith (17 points, 3-of-5 3-pointers) and senior guard Kevin Olekaibe (14 points, 4-of-5 3-pointers) also had big games offensively for UNLV, which shot 50 percent from the floor and connected on 7-of-13 treys. Rice also praised the defensive effort of 6-foot-11 senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa as a key to the win.
“To be able to come off the two disappointing home losses that we had, a huge win for our team,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
To see Rice’s entire postgame press conference, check out the VIDEO below: